Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Personal Buddha

I had an essay published in this month's edition of The Gyodeung [교등], "The Korean Buddhist Teacher's Association Newsletter"! It was one of five essays printed in the publication, along with three others from actual monks. Since the newsletter editors published the essay in Korean, here it is below in English.

A Personal Buddha
By jonnyontheroad

The place to improve the world is first in one's own heart and head and hands.
– Robert Pirsig

I grew up in a Christian family. We were very active in our church, and until middle
school I attended a small private Christian academy. I read my Bible daily and prayed to God,
and I tried to believe really hard that I would go to heaven. But doubt plagued my mind. Hell
is a terrifying place to imagine, especially for a child, and I remember days from my
childhood when I was sick with fear and guilt for the sins I had committed. My doubts
compounded my fear – to doubt means to not believe completely, and didn’t Jesus
say “whoever believes in me shall not perish, but shall have eternal life”? I felt sure that I
wasn’t believing strongly enough. I couldn’t talk to anyone about my uncertainty, because
everyone I knew was in the church. It was unsettling to be a part of a community that didn’t
question what they were taught. It seemed fake and insincere. I believed what Tom Robbins
wrote in Another Roadside Attraction:

Real courage is risking something that might force you to rethink your thoughts and
suffer change and stretch consciousness. Real courage is risking one's clichés.

Later in my life, when I began to learn about other world religions, more questions
arose in my mind. I knew I was a Christian only because I had been born into a Christian
family and dutifully exposed to the faith. What would have happened if I had been born into a
Hindu family in India? Would I have been condemned to eternity in hell by the chance of
birth? Many religions teach the existence of mutually exclusive deities; you can’t believe in
all of them, and if you don’t believe in the right one you’re out of luck for eternity. The
Christian image of God had begun to fade in my beliefs. There were too many good people in
the world to be condemned to an eternity of torture just because they believed something out
of ignorance. And I have met many mean, spiteful Christians who would go to heaven just by
believing something they were taught.

I can’t recall when or where my first introduction to Buddhism occurred, but I
remember being drawn to the idea that certain eternal truths reside within all of us. They
cannot be taught by someone else or read in a book – we have to realize them for ourselves
through insight and reflection. According to Alan Watts, a British philosopher, “Buddhism
has in it no idea of there being a moral law laid down by some kind of cosmic lawgiver.”
Even the Buddha said, in one of his most powerful and meaningful quotes,

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything
simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply
because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on
the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have
been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find
that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all,
then accept it and live up to it.

Though I have never considered Buddhism to be a religion – rather, a guide to living – the
Buddha is nonetheless a religious figure. And what could be more honest and unpretentious
than a religious leader who tells his disciples not to believe anything he says, but to put it to
the test? And so I did.

In 2006 I was invited to participate in a 10-day Vipassana retreat in Nairobi, Kenya.
I had never really meditated before (“meditation” was something of a bad word in my
childhood church, akin to “New Age” or eastern religions), but I believed in the power of the
mind and was eager to try. 'Meditation' used to conjure up in my mind images of relaxation,
of peace and tranquility. It was, perhaps, an old man seated by the bank of a bubbling river, contemplating its nature, or a long-haired hippie in a commune, visualizing peace and
harmony for all of mankind. I thought that a 10-day retreat would give me time to myself, to
clear my mind and figure out answers to some of the questions that had been bothering me
lately. I never thought that I would actually be asked to work.

'Vipassana,' 'insight' in the ancient Indian language of Pali, is what the Buddha
called the technique of meditation 2500 years ago that led him to his enlightenment. His
enlightenment was basically the revelation of the truth of nature; impermanence, or change.
Most people would probably contemplate this for a few moments and shake their head. Duh!
This is a simple concept to understand. But the Buddha didn't just understand this idea at an
intellectual level. He understood it at an experiential level within the framework of his own
body, through careful, constant self-observation. This experiential understanding is the goal
of Vipassana, and it resonated with me more than anything I had learned before in my life.

We practiced seated meditation for 11-12 hours per day, beginning with ‘anapana’,
or ‘breathing’ meditation, and progressing to an hour-long ‘determined sitting’, during which
we were asked not to move at all. It was excruciating at times. After an hour of sitting in one
position, my knees felt like they had been beaten with a sledgehammer and my back was a
spasm of fireworks. At first I was skeptical. But I stayed, and gave it a chance. This was the
teaching of the founder of Buddhism, Gautama the Buddha. I figured ten days wouldn't hurt,
though after the second and third days I have to say I felt like bolting. But I stayed, and I
learned. The Buddha said “It is a man's own mind, not his enemy or foe, that lures him to evil
ways,” and I practiced meditation with a pure mind and heart. When I became distracted or
angry thoughts entered my mind, I practiced equanimity. My resolve became stronger, my
mind clearer. For a few beautiful moments I existed in the present and only the present,
without thought of the past or the future, and I began to understand what Jesus meant when he
spoke of heaven.

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